Headcoverings and Hair: What's Your Hermeneutic?

Can you see her tongue planted firmly in her cheek? Rachel Held Evans would be the first to throw that scarf out and cut her hair short, but a literalist reading of the Bible says she can't if she wants to be a godly wife. I sure hope her husband, Dan, prays with his hands lifted up . . . wait. Nobody in my church requires any of that stuff. So how do we interpret passages from the Bible that talk about this? 

It's called hermeneutics: the rules by which we analyze scripture so that we can then apply the commands, principles, and timeless truths found within it. Scholars have disagreed for centuries on the best way to do hermeneutics. And there are several steps involved. But biblical scholars do continue to uphold one hermeneutical rule: context is king. 

Corinth Had Issues

Let's address the issue in Rachel's photo here: The city of Corinth was well-known in the first century for promiscuity, being the center of worship to the god of wine, Dionysus (Bacchus, to the Romans). Worshipers, men and women alike, wore long hair down and curled—which suggested the married women were available and the men were looking to “hook up” with boys. Knowing this can help modern readers understand Paul's reasoning later in the passage when he says that a woman’s “hair is given to her for a covering” (v. 15) and that it’s a disgrace for men to have long hair (v. 14). 

Corinthian morality was, shall we say, lacking. Earlier in his instructions, Paul addresses this by giving a counter-cultural corrective: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each women her own husband.” 

Essentially he encourages them to be self-controlled, even to the point of remaining single if they already were, for the sake of the gospel. 

Ephesus Had Different Issues

Contrast that with Paul's words to the church in Ephesus. This town worshipped Artemis, an independent, strong goddess who emphasized abstinence for men and women alike. But writing to readers in Ephesus, Paul encouraged each member of the family unit: wives to submit, husbands to love, children to obey, masters to be fair and just (Ephesians 5–6). In 1 Timothy, written to the pastor of the church in Ephesus, we see admonitions to young widows to marry and have children (5:14), in accordance with Caesar’s marriage laws. 

In both letters, Paul directs believers to counter-cultural behaviors that honor God. But the behaviors differed depending on the culture in which they lived. The point was to reflect God's character, love others, serve the Kingdom. Believers in different places, facing different influences, would follow different pathways to that end-goal. Culture dictated a lot of the specifics on how to shine as lights to the world. 

Cultural or Universal Truth?

Hermeneutics is hard, folks. Some truths are universal—Christ died for the forgiveness of sins; every person is a sinner; certain behaviors are consistently condemned throughout scripture across all cultures; justice, mercy and humility always honor God . . . . So we can't dismiss everything as "cultural, so it doesn't apply to me."

Knowing how to parse the variety of cultural references to find the meaning intended by the writer takes time, study, prayer, and wisdom. Our opinions are not enough. And the truths intended by the biblical writers are timeless. In this case, wives should avoid dishonoring husbands by presenting themselves as available to men, and men should avoid dishonoring Christ by looking available to boys. 

So when Rachel pokes fun at some people's literal application of 1 Corinthians 11:4, she's really asking about their hermeneutic. Do women in 2012 need to cover their heads in order to be godly? What other behaviors need to correlate with first-century Greco-Roman (or Old Testament Hebrew) culture? Or is that missing the point?

Thanks to Sandra Glahn for sharing her sources on  first-century Corinthian and Ephesian life:
Baugh, S. M. “Cult Prostitution in New Testament Ephesus: A Reappraisal.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42, no. 3 (1999): 443–60. 


Anonymous said…
I like how you say this, and I think you are exactly right: What Rachel is doing is, down at the core, a challenge for us to think harder about our hermeneutic. We are facing more and more evidence that the evangelical hermeneutic is hurting people; it is not good news. Rachel is one of those exploring new ways of thinking.
Kelley said…
Hi John, Thanks for commenting. I'm shocked that my blog has found readers past my few close friends :). I wanted to ask what you mean by "evangelical hermeneutic." That's a pretty broad label and can mean a lot of things. I come from a historical/grammatical hermeneutic myself, where plain meaning is interpreted plainly, and the words of Scripture are sacred, not just the ideas behind them. One perspective I've found very helpful is William Webb's, which he outlines in the book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals. If you haven't read it, I encourage you to do so. He posits a redemptive-movement hermeneutic, which gives culture an important role in interpretation. I believe his hermeneutic is valuable and insightful. But I think he calls himself an evangelical--he's a prof at Tyndale Seminary in Ontario.